Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kids Say (or write) More of the Darnedest Things

Learning can be fun and games are a great way of actualizing this. Teaching English in Asia (and probably everywhere else, too) presents the challenge of encouraging and helping the students pronounce words and sounds accurately. One way we have been helping them to focus on proper pronunciation is by playing the telephone game. The class is split into two teams and into the first person's ear we whisper a sentence. That person and everyone after has to whisper into the next person's ear until, finally, the message reaches the last person, the one at the back of the room, and he or she runs to the front of the class and writes the sentence as it was received on the chalkboard. One small mispronunciation along the line can produce some pretty weird sentences, words and grammar.

My favourite round of telephone happened to be when we relayed the message She is walking a dog. The first team ran up to the board quite quickly. The trouble with their strategy, though, was that they concentrated on speed rather than accuracy. In haste the little boy confidently scribbled down He is walking a door. At least his spelling was correct...

My second favourite round of telephone was the I kissed the cat round. Again, one team swiftly recorded the message on the chalkboard: I castrated the cat. Poor little guy...the cat, that is.

Thank you again to Didi and everyone else who welcomed us so warmly at Sunshine School. We are happy to hear that the Open House went just swimmingly.

Monday, March 28, 2011

It's in the mail...

Postcards: all filled out and ready to be mailed to you, our faithful readers! Be excited!

Two days, and four huge chai teas later = 39 postcards!

Sure sign you are in a country who's government is corrupt? The lady at the actual Official government post office sells stamps for twenty five more cents EACH than the value of the stamp! Tomorrow's task: attempt to bargain with the not-so-happy-stamp-seller at the Siem Reap Post Office to get a deal on stamps! Who knew buying stamps could be so exciting?! We'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bromance: Jonathan & Phout Sittin' in a Tree

UrbanDictionary.com defines: Bromance

1. Describes the complicated love and affection shared by two straight males.
2. A non-sexual relationship between two men that are unusually close.
3. A close relationship between two bros to such a point where they start to seem like a couple.

Mans-ing (v)

1. The act of wooing a fellow male friend for the purpose of becoming closer.
2. Going to unusual lengths in an attempt to become closer with another male friend.

It all began on International Women's Day. Go figure. Didi, the Director of Sunshine School kindly invited us out to see the school's organic farm, which was about an hour outside Vientiane. International Women's Day is an actual Holiday here, so there was no school that day. Phout, the PhysEd teacher at Sunshine was at Didi's house when we arrived in the morning, as he was going to come out to the farm with us. For Phout and Jonathan, it was love at first sight, or love at first sight of the Lao Phrasebook, perhaps. For the entire car ride, and then for the next two weeks, Jonathan and Phout had a complete and utter bro-mance happening. Phout didn't speak much English and Jonathan spoke even less Lao. We had been given a Lao Phrasebook from an Aussie friend named Greta way back in Luang NamTha. From that moment, it lived in the shirt of Jonathan's breast pocket and he used it several times a day. It was/is a fantastic tool to aid in communication with the locals. Whether its ordering rice and veggies at a menu-less restaurant or asking someone if they have kids (or answering that question, which was more likely) we can't imagine Lao without that phrasebook. So, as he had been doing over the previous two weeks, Jonathan used the phrasebook to start up a simple conversation with Phout. The phrasebook is especially useful because it has the Lao characters beside the English word, so even if the person you were trying to communicate with didn't understand what you were trying to say, you could point to the word in Lao. Jonathan and Phout 'discussed' sports and basic life history the entire car ride to the farm, and all the way back. Every time the phrasebook came out Phout got excited. He was fascinated by it. Jonathan would ask Phout a question and hand him the phrasebook. Phout would gingerly flip through it, getting distracted by the variety of subjects the book covered, reading words, getting Jonathan to pronounce them for him, and so on.

The next day at school, courting, Phout came and found Jonathan in his last class before lunch and personally escorted him to the lunch area. Everyday, Sunshine School fed everyone at the school a hot, scrumptious vegetarian lunch. The students came and brought a pot of rice and a pot of the day's main course to their classrooms to eat, and the teachers served themselves in the kitchen. Phout found Jonathan a bowl, filled it until rice was heaping over the edge, and then made him a second bowl full of the main course and carried them out to the table for him. He brought him extra fresh herbs and spices and sat right next to him, in case Jonathan had a whim for anything further. When Jonathan finally had worked his way through his first helping, without even asking, Phout whisked his bowl away for a refill. After the feast, Jonathan and Phout parted ways with an enthusiastic high five. And so it began. The daily love affair of Phout and Jonathan. They gushed at each other when they passed in the hall and waved excitedly when they saw each other across the courtyard. Everyday Phout would personally serve lunch up for Jonathan while, everyday, I stood in the middle of the kitchen, empty bowl in hand, watching in dismay. Everyday, while heading over to the lunch table, hands full of food, he would turn to me with a sly smile and shrug his shoulders as he left with Phout. If his hands hadn't been pre-occuppied with all the food Phout piled into them, there is no doubt those two would be walking around holding hands! If Jonathan ever happened to go to the bathroom before lunch, or stay in the class to talk to a kid and I went to the kitchen myself, I would be met with an adorably worried Phout. 'Where's Jonathan?' would be his greeting. And then, not only would I be standing there food-less, watching as Phout ran about making special arrangements for Jonathan's meal, I would also have to follow him around, assuring him that dear Jonathan was certainly on his way. 'No, of course he's not mad at you! You look very slim in that Phys Ed shirt! Any man who can't see how wonderful you are just isn't worth your time!' Haha Just kidding. But, Jeez. When does my suffering end?

p.s. Is it just me or does anybody else get the feeling that Kristen is very comfortable using hyperbole as a rhetorical device?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kid's Say the Darnedest Things

It was our first day at Sunshine and we were simply observing Saba's Grade Three class. She was reviewing with her class how to form a question in Present Continuous Tense. Don't worry if you can't remember what Present Continuous Tense is: there won't be an English test at the end of this post...if you're lucky! Anyway, Saba has a bit of an artistic flare and uses her talent to help teach her students. In this particular class, there were four drawings on the wipe board.

Drawing number one illustrated a woman reading a book. Correspondingly the question was What is she reading? Actually, it was the Asian equivalent of the above question: "What she is reading?" Drawing number two illustrated a man eating. The bright kids quickly came up with What is he eating? Drawing number three rightly invoked the question Why are you crying? Drawing number four, however, was a bit more ambiguous than the first three.

Just as I was thinking to myself What totalitarian dictator are you saluting? one of the kids put up his hand and said, "What are they smoking?" Saba and I looked at one another and smirked. It was funny, but it was even funnier because he was so earnest. Saba slightly modified the arm that was causing the confusion, but you can maybe see from the photo how it could have been misconstrued.

We have immensely enjoyed our time at Sunshine. The kids have melted us and the teachers have been so welcoming. See you next time, class.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

You are my Sunshine...

We've just finished our first week volunteering at Sunshine School in Vientiane, Lao! While our time here was meant to benefit the kids at the school, we feel that perhaps we are the ones who are gaining the most from this experience. The kids and staff are absolutely fantastic and we have very much enjoyed our time at the school with them thus far. Sunshine School is a 'non-profit, non-denominational institution dedicated to providing multicultural, ethically based education through integrated learning and the holistic development of the child.' The school educates a wide variety of age groups, from tiny little tots to teenagers. Our involvement is of the English class variety.

We arrived Monday morning and were warmly welcomed by Didi, the experienced Director of the school. She set us off to observe some of the English teachers for the day. Over the week we were welcomed into the happy rhythm of the school by all the teachers, both English and Lao, made to feel like we were really a part of Sunshine School, even though we were going to be here only for such a short time.

The kids are absolutely adorable. They are both full of energy and life, and enthusiastic learners. Every time we enter a classroom, or pass the kids in the playground we are met with a deafening chorus of `Good Morning Teacher Jon and Teacher Christ!!!`(Kristen is hard to pronounce, so they`ve given me a pretty accurate short-form). Their manners are impeccable. Not only do they actually make a point to stop and greet you, they always hold their hands together (in a prayer-like gesture) in front of their chests, they crouch down, as not to disturb what you are looking at, if they have to walk in front of you (not that that would be possible at three foot nothing), and they always sing `Thank you, Teacher! See you tomorrow!!`loudly when the bell rings at the end of class. The kids have taken an  especially exuberant liking to `Teacher Jon. Like being the understatement of the week. It was only our second day at the School and we had not yet been introduced to all the classes. That didn`t matter. Jonathan wandered into one of the classrooms to see if he could be of assistance to At, one of the friendly English Teachers and ended up completely disturbing the class as the kids erupted into loud cheers as soon as he stepped through the door. Chaos reigned. They were jumping up and down, throwing their arms in the air and waving their `thumbs up`in approval. `Teacher Jon!``Teacher Jon!`They started chanting. Hearing the commotion, and thinking that perhaps Elvis had just appeared into the next room, I went to take a look.  I half expected (and hoped) to find my husband at the bottom of a Grade Three goose pile. Wouldn`t that make a great picture? Thankfully he`s significantly taller than the mob of seven year olds and seemed to manage the attack ok. Surprisingly, his head (and ego) still fit back out the door after the class had ended. Not before being asked by every single kid for his autograph, of course.

Later that day, in a grade five class it came time to mark their homework. Poor Teacher At was left standing alone, red pen poised to mark, while every single kid lined up so Teacher Jon could mark their work. They would lift up the notebook he was currently marking and not-so-sneakily slide theirs into the pile. While they awaited their homework`s fate, they all crowded around Teacher Jon, petting his unruly beard (and perhaps looking for its inhabitants).

The kids love dancing, singing and pretty much anything that involves running or yelling. It was raining today, which was a wonderful break from the scorching sun) and Saba asked me if we had a 'raining season song' in Canada that I could teach to the grade fives. I laughed to myself picturing Canada having a rainy season. How would we fit it in among all the others, namely winter, which seems to last the longest? The first song that popped into my head was the simple Rain, Rain, Go Away! Come again another day! All the children want to play! I sang it to the grade five class who watched me as if I was more than a little nutso. So I sang it again. 'Does it have any actions?' Saba asked me. 'Ummm, sure!' I could make some up on the fly, right? So I did. To my surprise, the class loved it, and within seconds they were all on their feet, eyes glued to me, the 'expert of actions' dancing around like a bunch of cute marionettes. Ha! They sang the three simple lines over and over. I was beginning to feel like Sunshine's Bach. I wrote the words on the board and silence fell over the room as they diligently penned them into their notebooks in the neatest printing I have ever seen. They hummed the 'Canadian Rainy Song,' as named by Saba, the rest of the class.

Later this afternoon, I found myself in class with the oldest students. It was my first time in the class, so I endured the obligatory, 'Are you married?' 'Do you like Lao food,' and 'How did you manage to snag a catch like THE Teacher Jon?' questions before a shy girl in the back asked about my Canadian tradition. I thought for a millisecond before blurting out 'We make Maple Syrup!' Although this statement isn't perhaps, entirely true I have, in fact, made Maple Syrup once and do have the intentions of partaking in the event again, and therefore felt like Maple-Sryup-Making could fall under the list of 'My Canadian Traditions.' Plus, someone has to keep up these Canuck stereotypes. Besides, what else was I going to tell the kids? 'Umm. Well. We Canadians traditionally.....um.... we like to wear hats and call them toques? I don't know. Anyways, I said it, and then I realized that I was now going to have to explain the art of maple syrup making to a group of kids who have never seen snow, maple trees, sap, campfires or, in fact maple syrup. As I explained the process to a sea of blank faces I began to think the concept was a little crazy myself. We stick metal spouts into specific trees, at a specific time of year and collect all this water-like sap which we then boil down for hours and hours until it magically thickens to sweet perfection. I finished my explanation with a smile. Sigh. Maple Syrup. Being boiled into existence all over Canada right about now... 'Maybe you can draw what you mean?' Saba suggested. Even the English teacher didn't quite get it. I laughed and set about 'drawing maple syrup.' That's me. Making Canadians proud over here in Lao, one wonky chalk-drawn maple leaf at a time.

Being with the kids at Sunshine School has been a highlight of the trip. The only thing, in Vientiane, that can compare with the unbridled enthusiasm of the elementary school students, are the teachers of said school. We have had the pleasure of working closely with most of the English teachers at Sunshine School. We mostly assist Teacher Jock, At, Saba and Tok. They are all fantastic teachers and have been very friendly, helpful and welcoming to Jonathan and myself. We love watching them interact with the kids, singing songs with the younger ones and discussing life-issues with the older ones. Being our first real experience teaching English, we have learned so much in such a short time! They are fun and easy-going, but at the same time, demand respect from their students, a balance which I'm sure is one of the most important that a teacher maintain.

Next week Sunshine School is putting on an Open House tuned for their families and the community. The kids have been practicing their traditional dancing, break-dancing and singing at every free moment. I have been recruited to help Saba with the English play. So far, its been quite fun to work with these 'aspiring English-speaking actors' as they are generally quite willing to give whatever cockamamie idea we come up with a try. Poor kids. Stay tuned for more adventures at Sunshine School!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Voyageurs in Villages

Lao villages are something to behold. We spent a few days in the towns of Luang NamTha and Muang Sing in the northwest of Laos, getting some exercise and enjoying the scenery and people of the surrounding villages. Biking through some of the villages leaves us with the distinct impression that it is the year 1901 and have just somehow crossed an imaginary time warp line. This, of course, is why we find them so fascinating. People are just going about their daily lives. Lives which include husking grassy branches to make brooms, shaking the kernels from the rice grains, spreading out chilies on a bamboo plate to dry in the sun, bathing under a communal tap or just sitting on their doorstep watching village life flit by. Villages are always full of young kids chasing chickens, putting the death grip on an endless number of puppies, collecting bees in plastic bags, spinning tops and crawling in boxes. We think the best way to venture through the out-of-the-way villages is on a bike, and rent bicycles (in various stages of disrepair) most places we visit. Older kids go to school during the day, so if you are lucky enough to pedal through their village after they have arrived home, you will be met with an endless stream of 'Hello! Good Morning!' (in the evening) or 'Good Afternoon, Teacher!' (in the morning). Judging by the burst of uncontrollable laughter that follows these words, this is the funniest joke in Lao. You can't help but laugh along. They then continue to jump up and down, sometimes chasing after us, laughing, and yelling out any random English words they know.

The roads that snake through the villages, past the tidy wood houses, are dusty. I can imagine that in the rainy season, 'playing in the mud' is an activity topping a child's list of 'things to do today.' Kids climb to the top of trees so that they can call welcoming words from the heavens (and there-by causing anyone on a bike to swerve into head-on traffic in surprise). We rented bikes in Luang NamTha and were headed down one of the main roads around noon and were met with an entire school's worth of kids on their pedal home for lunch. They sped up to pass us and shout, 'Hello!' and then slow down so we could catch up and they could yell 'Hello!' yet again. One of the cheeky boys decided that simply using us for English practice was not enough. He wanted a free ride. So, he grabbed onto Jonathan's shoulder and let Jonathan pull him along, laughing gleefully the whole time. He had it all figured out. I tried the same trick later that day, with considerably less success. The kids departed on a helpful note, pointing us down a side path back to town.

Life goes on in plain view in these villages. No one is concerned with closing the blinds in the evening so passerbys can't glance in and catch them watching TV. One, because there aren't blinds, just big wood shutters that close at night to keep the mosquitos and light at bay, and two, because there aren't TVs. But you get the picture. Biking through a village you feel apart of every-day life. Women wearing sarongs bathe under the communal tap, using buckets to pour the water over their hair. Men sit on little stools, watching in a pink Barbie mirror while their wives cut their hair. The older generation sits on their stoops while their grandchildren frolick among the chickens and swing cats around by their ears. Women weave skirts on huge looms and men gather around the various contraptions and pots, stirring their batches of rice whiskey under experienced eyes. For us, this life is intriguing. It's hard to look away. They have so much less (stuff wise), but looking around, it's sometimes impossible to see how our 'stuff' would fit in. It's so simple and refreshing. What? People survive without perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences to separate 'mine' from 'yours'? You share a bedroom with who? Most of the time, the best part of the villages are it's friendly residents. You can't be upset when everyone is smiling at you. You almost get the feeling that you pedalled backwards into a different time; when weary travellers were welcomed warmly into family homes and taken care of while they were passing through.

Almost as nice as the villages themselves is the scenery you pedal past between the villages. Emerald green rice fields, dotted with bamboo shelters stretch out in front of us to the backdrop of looming Burmese and Chinese mountains in the distance. It's an absolutely perfect way to spend a morning or late afternoon. It's far too hot, and the sun is too strong to be out mid-afternoon. We take that as unofficial siesta time!

Although most villages are a pleasure to visit, it most certainly is not a blanket statement. The residents of each village belong to their own tribe. Some villages are more fond of visitors than others. Fair enough. We have noticed this more so in Lao. People are either super smiley and friendly, or they don't even acknowledge your existence when you greet them. Maybe they are just naturally reserved, but maybe there is a reason that they distrust outsiders. It's hard to say.

What we do know, is that outside influence, regardless of how well-intended it was to begin with, isn't always a positive thing for these villages. Is our visiting encouraging people to keep their traditional way of life, or is it encouraging every single person in the village to take up making tacky bracelets, because sometimes tourists come through and buy them? Or when you give that cute kid a few dollars and then they return home to their parents who have been working hard all day to earn half that amount. That can't be good for Dad's pride, which is important in these parts. And, if they can forgo the pride issue then why not send little Jimmy (not Jimmy the Rice Hat) out again tomorrow to see who will dole out some cash to him. It's not like going to school is important. Or how about just giving him candy? Because that's super helpful for kids in a country where not everyone has access to modern dentistry or maybe even knowledge of dental hygiene. Oh, and look, there's all those plastic candy bags floating down the river past us. True (and sad) eye-witness story. Anyways. When we were in Luang NamTha, which is a popular town from which to organize treks, we were constantly being followed by older women, dressed in traditional hilltribe clothing begging us incessantly to buy their seashell bracelets. Lao is landlocked. Clearly seashell bracelets are not some kind of traditional village craft. 'No', didn't work. Neither did 'no thank you' (in any language). Nor did, 'Don't need one' (Of course you do!) or 'No room in my bag,' (It's so small) or 'It's not my colour,' (Then it would look great on your travel companion, or a passing dog for all the seller cares) or 'I don't like it' (It doesn't matter what you like) or even the outright lie, 'I already have one' (Two is better than one...or three for that matter). The women would stand over us, our entire meal, having laid out their offerings down the middle of our table, moving any pesky condiments far out of the way, mumbling and pushing the bracelets onto our wrists. When that didn't work, they tried whispering, the secret code for selling opium, we found out. When some (stupid) tourist would give in and buy a bracelet for about twenty five cents, the real trouble would begin. More ladies would appear, apparating from the thin air, arms stocked with bracelets, sashes, belts and sarongs. They would then proceed to cover every inch of the (dumb) buyer's table with every single thing they had. Because, of course, buying one thing was never going to be enough. Literally surrounded by increasingly persistent Akha Ladies (they are always from the Akha tribe) most people would have to resort to changing tables just so that they would have somewhere to put their food when it arrived. At least it took the pressure off us for a few bites... It got to the point where we were so annoyed we would just outwardly ignore them. But then I would feel guilty. What the heck were we doing? We are the ones who came all the way to Lao to 'experience the culture,' and here was a Laotian, literally shoving it in our faces and we wanted absolutely nothing more than for it to just go away. We asked the man at our guest house. It turns out that these ladies are annoying for everyone, including locals (at least we weren't the only ones!) They leave their village and come to the town to sell to tourists, they sleep on the tables set out for the market that night and completely desert their roles in their home villages. It is a real social problem in this part of Lao. All this to say, 'The more you learn, the more complicated everything becomes.' Isn't it supposed to be the opposite way around?

Monday, March 07, 2011

My Heart Will Go On

I am sure you are fully aware of the chaotic nature of South East Asian transit by now. Since arriving in this part of the world, our blog entries have mentioned this facet of SE Asian travel more than a few times. Right from buying the ticket all the way to being let off the bus frantic energy pervades the whole experience to a greater or lesser extent. This, people, is the prelude to the following short, but heart-wrenchingly sad story.

After a harrowing journey, our bus arrived in Vientiane (the capital of Lao) just as we hoped it would. What threw us off, though, was that our vehicle stopped at the side of the road in the city. Seemingly, we were within walking distance to a guest house. You see, in Lao tourist transport usually stops several kilometers outside of the actual city you paid the driver to drop you in. This way, each person is sort of forced into paying a tuk tuk (kind of like a taxi) to cover the final three to ten kilometers into the city. This peculiar Laotian practice is annoying and does little to endear the country to many travellers that we have spoken to. Either way, that's how it is. Anyway, back to this terribly tragic tale. You can understand our surprise to be let off within one hundred meters of our target guest house. The reason for this break from common practice is because in the front seat, next to the driver, was a falang and his Laotian girlfriend. Together, this team charmed the driver into not stopping outside of the city.

We jumped out of the bus in shock and amazement. Knowing we could forgo the usual tuk tuk ride, it was a joyous moment for us. We checked in, ate and went for a mosey around town. Here's the bad news: It wasn't until later that we realized in the commotion of being let off in the unusually convenient location that we left Jimmy under the seat on the bus. Jimmy the Rice Hat is no longer with us. I can't say much more about this right now, but I wish Jimmy many more years of dedicated service, sheltering some lucky person from both sun and rain. Maybe this is the lucky break he was waiting for. With us he never had a chance of working in the rice trenches. At least now he still has a chance at that. Good night and good luck, Jimmy.

On a different note, tomorrow is International Women's Day (8 March). In fact, it is its centenary. It has an interesting history that is worth looking into for its deeper purposes. But it is also a good opportunity to think about the women each of us are lucky enough to have known and who have had a positive impact on who each of us have become. International Women's Day is a celebratory day so celebrate the women in your life! Love you, Kristen, Mom, Penny, A Eileen, Looch and Ginny!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Alive in Lao

One thing that has eluded us thus far in Asia is the time-distance ratio. Just how long is it going to take to get from here to there, there to here. One never can say for certain. We were in Mae Saelong, in Thailand and were hoping to cross the Laos border and then make it a few hours north up to Luang NamTha that same day. We really had no idea if it was possible or not. I suppose it's just all part of the adventure. Can you imagine me (especially) living like this at home? Who knows where we will sleep tonight? Somewhere between here and there...

Mae Saelong has been one of our favourite Thai destinations. The town runs along the spine of a mountain; just a hop, skip and jump from the Chinese border. In fact, Chinese is more readily heard spoken on the streets than Thai. Being in a village on the spine of a mountain is spectacular. On either side of the road the land gives way to steep slopes now mostly lined with tea plants. Every which way you look you see lovely lush hills in the foreground and the distant majestic mountains of Burma or China in the background. Houses, shops and restaurants cling to the edge of the mountain, rooted in the rock on the one side and supported by bamboo stilts on the other. Every house has a breathtaking view. The downside of being on the spine of a mountain is the getting there. Hair pin turns switch back and forth, back and forth, up, up, up the terrifying, yet beautiful mountain range. Once you're at the top, there's no where to go but down. Really down. Down, down down. This thought doesn't seem to even enter the minds of locals as they fly down the streets helmet-less on their motorbikes (see our Flickr photos on the right).

Anyways, that's where our adventure to Laos began. With an early morning, ninety minute songtheaw ride back down through the mountains with a old lady who spit out the window every thirty seconds and a couple of babies who stared at Jonathan's beard like it was about to jump off his face and attack them. (Although, really, who knows whats living up there in that crazy facial bush these days). The songtheaw pulled up alongside another songtheaw in a backstreet village and our bags were hoisted from one roof to another and we switched to another songtheaw for the duration of our journey to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai we hopped a bus to Chang Khong, on the Laos border. We were dropped off on the side of the street, conveniently in front of the tuk tuk hang out so that we could pay them a bit to drive us further down the street to where the tiny eight-seater long tail boats waited to take us across the river to Laos. Really, the bus could have dropped us off at the end of the street next to the boat pier, but then what would all these tuk tuk drivers have to do all day? We paid the boat guy far too much to take us for a sixty second jaunt across the river where we then waded through the mud to get to the landing.

There was a sign that said 'Check In' up the hill from the boat ramp, and so we assumed that that might be a good place to stop and maybe have a chat with Laos Immigration. Who knew though, really. Tourists were walking about lost for direction practically bumping into each other as they tracked in circles. There was absolutely no direction. Somehow we ended up with paperwork to fill out and then we stood in front of the window that said 'visa fee' as opposed to the 'check in,' 'check out,' or 'only official money exchange' sign, which were the other options. The officers stared back at us from behind the glass. So we stood there some more. Then someone came out and took our papers, passport and photo and stomped back into the office slamming the door behind him. We inched closer to the glass window. The Officers were doing their best to avoid any eye contact. Now what? We wondered. So I asked. 'Now what?' I asked politely, sticking my face up to the minscule hole just wide enough to slide our passports. 'Five minutes,' the Officer barked. And then he sat there, with the
pile of our passports beside him and continued to count his wad of American money. (The visa fee is charged in USD, but they take Thai Baht too, if you really want to be ripped off.) First, he spread it out into piles, separating the tens from twenties and fifties. Then he piled them all back up again. Then, for what appeared to be sheer entertainment, he divided the bills into piles again. Then he wadded the bills, arranged them into origami shapes, and put elastics around them. Then he took the elastics off and rearranged them again. Wash, rinse, repeat. When we got bored of that show, we turned our attention to the 'VISA FEE' paper that had been taped to the wall. We were shocked to find that Canadians pay the absolute highest fee for a Laos visa. $44 USD! Most European countries were $30USD and the United States was $37. If you were from Cuba or China you got a super deal at only $20 USD. Even citizens of Afghanistan could get a Laos visa cheaper than Canadians. What exactly had Canada done to anger Laos Immigration to this extent, I wondered. Someone should get to the bottom of this. Perhaps, next time we are on Skype we will take a second to ring up Mr. Harper and request that he pen a letter offering Canada's sincerest, deepest apologies to Laos, for whatever our wrong-doings may have been, and send it off straight away. Oh, and would he mind sending our $28 refund cheque to....

We figured our 'five' minute wait was up when someone called 'Visa Fee!' through the passport slot and wagged our passports at us like we were dogs being offered a bone. 'Why is Canada so much?' I asked the Officer forking over our US dollars. He looked at me like I had just asked him to solve the problem 527 x 7237502750 (it equals 3,814,163,949,250) and shook his head. 'Ahhh so it's super classified information!' I nodded, putting a finger aside my nose, 'Don't worry, your secret is safe with me!' He smiled. He had no idea what I was talking about. But it didn't really matter. We had Laos visas and a thirty-day entry stamp. All was good. We barely even got down the steps from the 'Check In' Office when we passed a Tiki Bar looking set up with a handwritten sign that said 'Passport Check.' The bartender/Officer took a quick glance at our passports and waved us up the road. Nice.

It was mid afternoon by this point and it was hot. We arranged a mini bus to NamTha at the first ticket agency we came to and spent a couple hours exchanging our Thai Baht for Laos Kip and eating lunch while we waited for our bus. The bus was meant to arrive at 4pm and we would be in Luang NamTha three hours later. We were counting on it to be on time, because we knew the road up to NamTha was windy and we didn't want to be driving it at night. Doing anything in Asia at night other than sleeping in a safe, comfortable (and on land) guest house isn't high on our priority list. Driving on these crazy roads with these crazy drivers at night is actually in the Top Five of our 'Things to Avoid at All Costs,' list. You can imagine how happy we were then when our minibus arrived at about 3:50pm. And you can also imagine our growing annoyance when that same mini bus drove away to get 'fuel' and then didn't return for another hour. So close. We knew then, that even if the bus did in fact take three hours, which was highly unlikely, that we would still be on the road, winding around the hairpin turns in the dark. We said a prayer and threw our luggage up onto the roof.

'Do you notice anything different?' Jonathan asked me. I looked around. Kamikaze motorbikers, rusty local buses, rickety tuk tuks. 'Ummm. No?' 'We're back on the right side of the road!' Wow. He was right. So weird. We had been on the left side for so many months, and now in little landlocked Laos, they decided to drive on the right hand side! That must make land border crossings quite interesting... Maybe saying that we were driving on the right side of the road would be a bit of a stretch. In actual fact, we were swerving back and forth across the road to which ever stretch of pavement the driver deemed more favourable. It also wouldn't be a stretch to say we had an 'ambidexturous' driver who spent just as much time on the left side of the road as he did on the right. So far, we liked Laos.

'Whoa! What's this?' Jonathan asked pulling a long sturdy piece of material out from under his bottom. 'Hmmm. I have no idea!' I said, studying the metal clip at the end of it. We burst out laughing, like we were the funniest people this side of 'Just For Laughs.' It was a seat belt. We hadn't seen a seat belt since out plane landed in Singapore and we found it pretty entertaining to find one on this ancient mini bus. We buckled up. 'Safety First!' That's our motto.

We weren't even on the outskirts of the city and our driver was already concentrating intensely on the obstacle course of cows, water buffalo, piglets, dogs, cats, children and people's houses that kept popping out in front of us like a line of nasty jack-in-the-box. What? You've never seen a house 'pop out of no where?' Believe me. It happens. It must walk out on its stilts or something. Our guidebook said that the road improvements between the border and NamTha had made the journey significantly more enjoyable that it previously had been. The condition of the road solidly pointed to the conclusion that the guidebook authors had imbibed in some local Lao Lao (rice whisky) when penning these notes. Either that or the 'road' was previously a jungle trench, filled with monkey poo and lined with yet-to-be-detonated UXOs. Because that's the only way that this road would be an improvement to anything. If we were in NamTha in three hours, I would eat my hat. Beside me, Jonathan comforted Jimmy the Rice Hat, telling him that he would protect him in the event that a hat would, in fact, have to be consumed.

I was cursing the Lonely Planet (which is a daily event anyways) when the road magically transformed into pavement smoother than a baby's bottom. The saying 'Be Careful What You Wish For' popped into my head. As soon as the road evened out our driver morphed into Mario Andretti playing a racing video game. It must have been a game, because there is no way anyone in real life, with real 'live' people as passengers would drive like this. Because you come very close to feeling like you are going to die. And generally I wouldn't pay money for that sort of thrill. He took the ninety degree turns at the perfect speed to get up on two wheels at every possible opportunity. The curves were so tight that he had to use all his body weight to make the steering wheel turn. He was a little guy. I know this because I was sitting directly behind him and watched in fear as his torso would swing into the passenger seat when we turned right and practically out the window when we swerved left. Seriously: picture a little kid playing a car racing game.

Just as the last rays of light were sinking behind the mountains, the driver gave one last galiant effort to kill us before nightfall. We played chicken with an oncoming transport. Just for fun. I mean, the pavement WAS better on that side of the road. 'Don't worry,' Jonathan sighed, opening one eye after I disturbed his slumber with a panicked shake. 'That's why they gave us seat belts: in case the road is better on the wrong side. We'll be fine.' And we were. Note to Self: Try even harder to avoid the roads at night.